Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Element of Surprise Helps Babies Learn

If you have been around babies or young toddlers for long, you know they love the element of surprise. Games like peek-a-boo bring squeals of laughter for many young children. Have you ever wondered why youngster love surprise and novelty? I had honestly not ever considered it much before but new research is showing us that the element of surprise may actually help babies learn.

In a new article in the journal Science, researchers explain how babies use the element of surprise as a moment of learning. They explain that as new little ones to the world, babies do not know what is important to focus on and what information could be ignored. To help sort through all this, they rely somewhat on the element of surprise. In other words, when an object or person does not act as they would predict (i.e. a surprise), they use this as an entry point to explore more.

Researchers conducted a clever lab experiment to test this hypothesis. Babies that were around 11 months old were give two events to view--a predictable event and a surprising event. A predictable event might be a ball rolling down a ramp and hitting a wall. A surprising event might be a wall rolling down a ramp but magically going through the wall (thanks to a little slight of hand by the researchers). The scientists discovered that babies were much more likely to explore and investigate the ball that did the surprising action (went through the wall). They not only picked up the ball, but they would try to test is abilities by banging it on the table or similar actions. Scientists believe these responses show that the babies are not just responding to a surprising event but actually using the unpredictable behavior to learn more about their world.

This research is not only fascinating but it does give us some greater insight into how babies learn. At times I think we as adults seem to think that babies learn things the way we do, but most research indicates they learn in different ways. Their little brains are so active and less focused (in a good way) than ours. This study illustrates how surprise and novelty play into babies unique learning style.

This also made me consider the role that toys can play in babies learning. Many baby toys do things or illustrate object movement in a way that is predictable. This is helpful in a way because it helps babies learn how things like gravity works. However, this study makes me wonder if some toys should cater to this attraction to surprise that babies seem to have. If some toys were created in this way, maybe they would hold babies' attention longer and encourage learning.

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